Music Subscriptions Could Work, Eventually

by Steven Leigh Nov 06, 2007

In a previous column I discussed music downloads, and mainly focused on whether we truly “own” music that is locked with DRM. I briefly mentioned music subscription services and Steve Jobs’ contention that customers want to own their music, and not rent it. I have to agree that in our present situation, music subscription services are not very appealing. There are too many issues that need to be resolved for it to be a viable option. But what would it take to make music subscription services enticing enough for me to use them? I’m glad you asked.

First, let’s examine a few of the problems with music subscription services as I see them:

1. You don’t own your music
This is a big one. People are used to owning their music and knowing they will always have it. As I stated in my previous article, you may not own downloaded music the way you think you do, but the CDs you buy at a store are certainly yours for as long as you keep them. With a subscription service, when you cancel, you take none of your music with you. 

2. Songs are not compatible with all players
This is a problem of DRM mostly. Many of the subscription services currently use Windows Media formats, which lock out iPods and even Zunes, and the Zune subscription service only plays on Zune players. This is a problem as well. Who knows if the Zune will even be around in 4 years? Who knows if Windows Media will even be around?

3. Not all artists are available
Sure, unlimited music seems like a great idea, until you realize that your favorite independent artists aren’t available, or that a major record label hasn’t signed a deal with your particular service and none of their artists appear on the service.

With all these issues, the subscription model doesn’t seem like a good bet in its current form. But I can see a future where this would make sense. I can see a future where these issues are resolved, and there is a service offered that is more appealing than “owning your music.” It all begins with the iPhone.

Here is what my imaginary music subscription service would look like in the future. I’m carrying a device similar to the iPhone, a device which has wireless internet access with faster bandwidth than is currently available, enough to stream music wirelessly at good quality without lag. I have a subscription service that maintains deals with virtually every artist and record label out there, and pays them well for their music. My device does not have much music on it, because it does not need to. When I think of a song I want to listen to, I simply navigate through the store, find the song, click on it, and it begins playing in its entirety. If I want to listen to the entire album, it’s there. If I want to create a playlist of artists with a similar sound to that artist (similar to what you can get at I can do that. None of this music is stored on the device, nor does it need to be.

So that takes care of the first problem, at least in my opinion, but we still may run into compatibility issues with other players, and we may not have obscure artists available. Not a problem. This imaginary music service of mine guarantees compatibility with all current players and all future players. The company (or group of companies) running it works hard to support an open platform that is easily implemented by hardware manufacturers, and they offer profit-sharing to those who support their standard. After a few years of success with their service, hardware manufacturers would be shooting themselves in the foot NOT to make themselves compatible. 

What about those obscure artists who might fall through the cracks? This imaginary music service also offers a request service where subscribers can make a request for an artist not already available, and the company will contact the artist or label directly to sign on with them. This service pays artists and labels so well that they are glad to sign on when contacted and within weeks, your requested artist is available on the service. What if the artist still doesn’t want to sign? You simply rip a CD and upload the files to their servers. It will then be available only to you, whenever you request it, eliminating the need for you to store it on your device but preventing others from accessing it.

For a service like this, I would be willing to pay a subscription fee and abandon my CD collection. The ability to have access to any song anywhere is just too enticing to pass up. If a friend asks, “Have you heard the new song by The Shins?” within minutes, you have.  If you’re driving in your car trying to remember the words to the Beatles song that you can’t quite remember, you just pull up the song and you’re listening to it. 

All of this could happen, but despite my example of the iPhone, this kind of service won’t come from Apple. It probably won’t come from Microsoft either, even though they currently offer a subscription service. This would take a company with a more open mind. Steve Jobs is too narrow-minded in his views of what he thinks his customers want. Microsoft might attempt something like this, but would likely introduce yet another closed file format. We need an open-minded company that can see the big picture and create enough drive that the artists and record companies can get behind it. Google may be able to pull this off, or perhaps it’s a company we haven’t even heard of yet. Nevertheless, when this service meets these criteria, you can bet I’ll be the first in line.



  • I wonder if it’s just my age (over 39) and my interest in cutting down clutter in my life and on my computer, but I am no longer concerned with owning music.  Now I just want to make sure I have access to music through systems that ensure that musicians and songwriters are being paid. 

    We have hundreds of LPs and CDs, but after we moved into our current house they went directly into our basement.  Now we’re relying purely on subscription services and webcasting stations.  I have a Mac and two Sonos boxes in my house.  The master Sonos box connects to my modem and delivers music around our house ... wirelessly.  Through the Sonos I can access my Rhapsody subscription (which I think is a bargain at $12.99 a month), Pandora, any webcast station, and my own iTunes folder (burned CDs or tracks purchased from iTunes/eMusic).  This means I have access to hundreds of streaming radio stations, millions of tracks from Rhapsody, or my own playlists, without ever having to fumble through jewel cases or purchase downloads.  Sure, there are a few musical holdouts and a bit of missing content, but I have very few problems.  Also, I know I can always buy the physical CD if it’s that important to me.

    Of course, this solution is not portable, but given that I spend the majority of my time working in my house, this has been a very elegant solution. I can still fill up my iPod off my Mac when I need music on the go.  PS> I think wi-max in cars will change the game significantly.

    Kristin Thomson had this to say on Nov 06, 2007 Posts: 1
  • Whether I would want to utilize a subscription music service or not, I definitely think it should be an option.  Choice makes the world a better place.

    A subscription service is kind of like a cross between VOD and satellite radio.  You subscribe as you would with satellite radio, but you get the added benefit of picking and choosing from an all-you-can-eat menu of music.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Nov 06, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • Well, Apple would probably get more of my cash if they offered an affordable (and optional, of course) iTunes “subscription” service than they do now with the purchase-only model.  The amount and diversity of music I’d listen to would greatly increase if I didn’t have to buy all of it (which I definitely can’t afford to do).  And I could still buy (from wherever) what I’d really prefer to own for some reason.

    I also think the iMix(?) feature on iTunes would become more useful and fun (for me) with subscriptions.  As it is now I couldn’t care less what other people like because I’m not going to make purchases just to see if we share similar tastes.  Hmm, looks like iMix is gone though I did find Celebrity Playlists with a search.

    I could explore existing non-iTunes alternatives like Rhapsody but integration with iTunes is the kind of convenience my wife would appreciate.

    Most arguments I’ve seen against music subscriptions are uncompelling, from people who obviously have no personal interest in them while failing to realize the value they can have for others.  And sensible explanations, like Kristin’s here, will never change some of their stubborn minds.

    sjk had this to say on Nov 08, 2007 Posts: 112
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